WASHINGTON -- Was this a wakeup call?
On Thursday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made an unprecedented move, announcing in a memo sent to the 32 league owners that he is mandating increased disciplinary actions for instances of domestic violence.
On its face, this is a very good thing for the league, and long overdue. But dig a little further into the letter itself and it seems that the NFL is still very much unaware as to how far behind it is on this issue.
Domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong. They are illegal. They are never acceptable and have no place in the NFL under any circumstances. Our Personal Conduct Policy has long made clear that domestic violence and sexual assault are unacceptable. We clearly must do a better job of addressing these incidents in the NFL. And we will.
There is literally one mention of domestic violence in that referenced conduct policy, lumped in with every other type of crime for which the NFL considers disciplinary action.
According to a study by the University of Central Florida from last year, women make up 45 percent of the NFL's audience and 33 percent of its television viewers. That's an awfully strong percentage of the market share to risk alienating by intimating that drug offenses are more serious than violence against them.
Of course, Goodell's sudden move, a week before the start of the season, would never have happened without the video evidence of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his apparently unconscious fiancée from an Atlantic City casino hotel elevator going viral on the web.
Furthermore, it doesn't happen without the NFL's clueless response to the incident, handing out a mere two-game suspension last month, while handing out a year-long suspension to Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon for a second positive test for a drug of abuse (marijuana this time, after a prior positive test for codeine in 2013). Perhaps, at the very least, Thursday's news makes the more than three-week wait for Gordon's punishment -- handed down Wednesday -- more understandable.
For Goodell to claim -- after the tone-deaf way Rice's suspension was handled -- that the NFL has made anything clear in regards to its views on domestic violence seems highly suspect.
Furthermore, it begs the question of how, or even whether, these cases will bring about punishment when there is no video evidence, which there almost never is. How would the NFL, for instance, have handled a situation such as the sexual assault charge against Florida State quarterback and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston last year? That charge was eventually dismissed, the Florida State Attorney literally laughing as he convened the press conference.
Benjamin Morris, of ESPN's 538 website, recently charted the incident rate for a number of crimes within the NFL against the national average for men in the 25-29 age range most represented by professional football teams. Thanks to the lack of poverty among the well-paid athletes, the overall crime rate is well below that of the general population, at just 13 percent.
The NFL's mishandling of the Ray Rice suspension -- and the ensuing public outcry -- led to Goodell's decision. (Getty Images/Rob Carr)
But Morris found the highest rate of incidence of any type of crime is domestic violence, at 55.9 percent. That is well above the 39 percent relative reported rate for women from households making $75,000+, and far higher than the 20 percent of those age 20-34 in that category.
Of course, this is especially problematic in the NFL, where only the biggest, strongest athletes in America can make it, training their bodies for hours each day to maintain or improve their fitness. Even up against one of the smallest players in the league -- such as the 5-foot-8, 208-pound Rice -- most humans would find themselves at a severe physical disadvantage.
"We can't just make up the discipline," said Goodell at the time of Rice's press conference.
And yet, on Thursday, that's exactly what he did. By inserting the new penalties directly into the old Code of Conduct, he circumvented any discussion with the NFL Players Association. It helps Goodell save face for his own mishandling of the Rice situation, and prevents him from taking any criticism from the NFLPA, as nobody is going to stand up in support of domestic violence.
Futures Without Violence (FUTURES), the organization that helped develop the Violence Against Women Act passed by Congress in 1994, responded positively to Goodell's actions, but cautioned that more needs to be done.
"We're pleased to have the opportunity to work with the NFL to help elevate their leadership in preventing violence against women," said FUTURES president and founder Esta Soler in a press release Thursday. "While harsher penalties for players are necessary, it's only step one to curbing domestic and sexual violence. Real transformation will require prevention-based solutions rooted in education and the promotion of mutual respect."
Deep in Goodell's letter, he discusses in general terms the expansion of educational components at the youth, high school and college levels that address domestic violence and sexual assault.
"In our earliest contact with young men, we can communicate our expectations, establish NFL standards of conduct, and stress the responsibility that all men have to adhere to those standards," the letter reads.
Those standards of conduct in place since Thursday, at least. To act otherwise is say that Eurasia has always been at war with Eastasia. Let's just hope that when it comes to implementing the new educational components, the NFL is more honest about its past, to help forge a better future.
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